The New Crossover Class of Portable Computers

Ultraportable PCs have the potential to eclipse the handheld and laptop markets.

In the interest of full disclosure, I currently consult with Vulcan and sit on IBMs advisory council.

Crossover vehicles have started to dominate the automotive market. It started with the minivan, a combination of car and van, and then proceeded to the station wagon/truck hybrid called the SUV. Now we see the SUV combining with sports cars, resulting in the Porsche Cayenne and the Infiniti FX.

Were starting to see hybrids emerge in the computing market too. Smart phones such as the Treo 600 and Motorola MPx200, which combine handheld computers and phones, are increasingly popular. Media Centers, which combine a traditional computer with a CD/DVD player and PVR, are one of the biggest growth areas today for PCs. And portable computers are birthing their own hybrid—a new class called the UPC or ultraportable PC.

A UPC is a cross between a handheld computer such as the HP iPaq and a laptop computer like the Sony Vaio 505. They combine the features of both classes of device into a new form factor.

These devices, in some cases, also combine design elements from the Apple lines. Many of the UPC hardware designers came from Apple Computer. Apple almost got the handheld right with later versions of the Newton, yet in the end the company abandoned the market. IBM was actually the first to show off a prototype of this new class of computer, yet it will not be among the first to ship one.

Im very positive on this new class of computer, but Ill be the first to admit that, as with any new class, the vendors often dont get it right the first time. Jim Louderback, in his counterpoint to this column, suggests that Ive fallen for "the latest pretty girl to walk down the street." I think that, while she indeed is very pretty, she has substance as well.

Market Potential

Similar to crossover cars, the UPC is designed to fill a niche that isnt being addressed by existing products. And as in the automotive world, I believe that as these devices mature, sales could exceed the handheld and laptop classes that birthed them. Jim thinks this is unlikely—after all, the smart phone has hardly overwhelmed either the handheld market or the cell phone market, and it too is a crossover product. However, I would counter that it hasnt yet hit its stride; the most compelling smart phones have yet to come to market, though the new Palm Treo and Motorola offerings are getting very close.

When the laptop first shipped, it quickly eclipsed the luggable class that came before it. Similarly, the handheld computer obliterated the original PDA market.

The industry doesnt always get it right the first time, though. The first real handheld computer, the Newton, failed to meet expectations. Sometimes the idea and the technology just arent close enough to initially be successful.

Ive had a chance to review many of the initial UPC crop, and I think were really close. If buyers can see the potential for these devices, I predict that they will quickly disrupt the current market.

Next page: Why a UPC?